Noticing and Loving "the Stranger, the Widow and the Orphan" Among Us

Parashat Mishpatim is filled with rules and laws of all kinds... so many that it can be easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. But, right smack in the middle of the Torah portion, two verses that appear back-to-back carve out a category that is central to who we are as Jews.

Parashat Mishpatim is filled with rules and laws of all kinds... so many that it can be easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. But, right smack in the middle of the Torah portion, two verses that appear back-to-back carve out a category that is central to who we are as Jews. The specific verses in question are Exodus 22:20-21:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃
You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.

The stranger, the widow, and the orphan function together as a set, both here and in subsequent biblical texts. Taken together, they represent the vulnerable edge of society. Rashi (the medieval French commentator) explains this as follows: "That (i.e. not wronging someone) is also the law regarding any person, but Scripture is speaking of what usually happens and therefore mentions these in particular, for they are feeble in defensive power (i. e. they have no one to protect them) and it is a frequent occurrence for people to afflict them." In other words, precisely because the stranger, widow and orphan were commonly wronged in ancient times, the Torah commands us specifically regarding them.

In a Dvar Torah on this parasha, Rabbi Shai Held writes that our obligation towards those who are most vulnerable does not end in Parashat Mishpatim. Rather, "Exodus teaches us the baseline requirement: not to oppress the stranger. Leviticus magnifies the demand: not only must we not oppress the stranger, we must actively love her. And Deuteronomy raises the stakes even higher: loving the stranger is a crucial form of 'walking in God’s ways.'"

Today, the language of "stranger, widow and orphan" may not resonate exactly; we might use very different language to describe the specific categories of those who reside on the margins of our society, at greatest risk of abuse or in need of most protection. But, the principle first expressed in Parashat Mishpatim -- that we have a special obligation to look out for the needs and well-being of the vulnerable -- remains core to who we are as Jews. Here are three examples of how this idea has resonated and applied for me over the past week:

1) Yesterday, Kavana participated in a Multifaith Criminal Justice Reform Lobbying Day. Altogether, this multiracial, multifaith group represented 14 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations, and held 17 meetings with state legislators. The six bills we focused on touched on a wide range of issues -- from clemency to solitary confinement to legal financial obligations. While speaking in terms of "human dignity" and "restorative justice," what we were really doing was standing up for a group of people who we might consider a modern-day "stranger, orphan or widow": those who are incarcerated. Parashat Mishpatim calls on us to remember that people who are living behind bars are still human, and their lives matter. (As an aside, I was proud that Kavana was well represented in this coalition. Special thanks to Stacy Lawson, Julie Burg, Chava Monastersky, Arlene Cohen, Ann Levine, Tamara Erickson, Josh and Judy Elkin, Diane Hostetler, Chessy Singer, RachelDoyle, Sonia Jaffe and others for showing up on behalf of our community in this important and holy work!) This work will certainly continue over the coming months and there will be many opportunities to engage.

2) Last weekend, a Trans & Non-Binary Torah Study Group met at Kavana for the first time. While Kavana aspires to be a safe place for EVERYONE, there is no question that in our broader society, it is particularly hard to be trans or non-binary. We can see this vulnerability through the high prevalence of suicide thoughts and attempts among transgender youth and adults, and also in the many harmful anti-trans legislation proposals (in states around the country, including our own!). If we purport to care about "the stranger, the orphan, and the widow," as Parashat Mishpatim calls upon us to do, it is incumbent on all of us, whatever our identity, to support the many trans and non-binary members of our own community (in ways as simple as using correct pronouns!), and to stand up against hateful legislation, in support our fellow human beings everywhere. (Special thanks to Roberta Klarreich for bringing some of the anti-trans legislation to my attention -- see below in Partner News for more information about the work she's been up to lately!)

3) On Saturday, January 16th, the attack on a synagogue in Texas left many of us -- and Jews everywhere -- feeling particularly vulnerable. In addition to the fear stirred up by the horrible hostage situation, many of you reported to me that your sense of Jewish marginalization was compounded by the silence of non-Jewish friends/colleagues and the downplaying of antisemitism (even by the FBI, initially!). Perhaps in this case, it felt like we were the stranger, widow and orphan. A few of us had the chance to process this event together in conversation following last Saturday's Kavana Shabbat Minyan, and as I shared there, my experience was a little different. Even as the situation was still unfolding at Congregation Beth Israel, I was already receiving messages of support, solidarity, and prayer from my African American colleagues, who have been part of a Black-Jewish Clergy group (creating "Beloved Community") with me for the past several years. One colleague sent prayers to the hostages in Colleyville; another wrote "We see again why you hire armed security, and use small or no signage identifying your congregations...;" still another said "We are all affected by this demonic attack on your community." Reading these notes -- sent from members of one vulnerable group to another, with intention and love -- made me feel significantly less alone and significantly less vulnerable.

During this week of Parashat Mishpatim, I urge us all to let these texts and themes continue to percolate at the forefronts of our minds. You might ask: Who else stands in as our modern-day "stranger, widow and orphan"? What obligations do we have towards them? How can we work together to see, support, and advocate for those who are most marginalized, in their moments of greatest need and in an ongoing way? There are no singular answers, of course, but these lines of Torah feel perpetually relevant; it's always the right time to hone our awareness, empathy and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum